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The Chat with Steven Heighton

Steven Heighton cr. Mark Raynes Roberts 600 dpi

This week, we’re in conversation with author Steven Heighton. His memoir, Reaching Mithymna: Among the Volunteers and Refugees on Lesvos, (Biblioasis) was a recent finalist for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

The 2020 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction jury says:

"We know Steven Heighton as an award-winning poet and novelist. With Reaching Mithymna, he emerges as an indelible nonfiction writer. Combining his poetic sensibilities and storytelling skills with a documentarian’s eye, he has created a wrenching narrative from the front lines of the Syrian refugee crisis. In 2015, Heighton travelled to Greece, his mother’s homeland, equipped with a duffel bag, a notebook, and a conscience. Reaching Mithymna is a heart-rending story of humanity and sacrifice by a writer who put his own life on hold in a desperate and often futile attempt to help shipwrecked strangers find a safe and secure future for themselves and their children.”
Steven Heighton’s most recent books are a novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, which has appeared in French and Ukrainian translations and has been optioned for film, and a poetry collection, The Waking Comes Late, which received the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. His novel Afterlands has appeared in six countries; was a New York Times Book Review editors’ choice and was cited on year-end lists in the US, the UK, and Canada; and is in pre-production for film. His short fiction and poetry have received four gold National Magazine Awards and have appeared in London Review of Books, Granta, Best English Stories, Poetry, Best American Poetry, Tin House, Agni, Best American Mystery Stories, Zoetrope, New England Review, and five editions of Best Canadian Stories. Heighton has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain’s W.H. Smith Award, and he is an occasional fiction reviewer for the New York Times Book Review.


Trevor Corkum: In Reaching Mithymna, you explore the impact of your decision, back in 2015, to spend a month volunteering at the OXY refugee transit camp on Lesvos in Greece. Can you walk us through what led you to that decision?

Steven Heighton: I made my decision more or less overnight. I’d been reading about the situation on Lesvos and the need for volunteers; I figured my slight knowledge of Greek, my mother’s first language, might make me more useful (it didn’t). Another factor: I was between drafts of a novel featuring imaginary Mediterranean refugees, and in light of the real-life catastrophe on Lesvos, my fictional project suddenly seemed frivolous. It also helped that flights to Greece were dirt cheap because of the crisis’s effect on tourism.

Disclaimer: after-the-fact explanations are always too neat. Mine here are graphing a clear causal arc onto a decision that remained slightly mysterious to me even after my arrival in Greece.

In Reaching Mithymna I write, “I’m still not sure why I’m here, beyond a wish to do something useful, involving flesh and blood people instead of invented characters and words on a screen. Three nights ago on the phone with my daughter—nineteen and now living away from home—I’d mentioned my impulse and then thought: Let’s see you act for a change, not just pipe-dream and make principled noises; not just write about refugees in a novel.”

TC: In the fickle, fading attention of the world, mainstream news of the migrant crisis has largely been displaced by the pandemic, Donald Trump, and other stories. Your book brings us back into the heart of the crisis with such deep compassion and careful attention. Why is it important for this book to come out right now?

SH: I think there are two main reasons. First, as you point out, the Middle Eastern refugee crisis is still going on. In the fall of 2015, on Lesvos, I would not have predicted that civil war would still be bleeding and emptying Syria five years later (how naïve of me). Second, because here in Canada, and even more so since the start of the pandemic, we have an internal refugee crisis of our own: I mean the worsening homelessness problem. Last month, a ten-minute walk from where I’m sitting, an encampment built by homeless folks was demolished by the authorities. This crisis long pre-dates the pandemic, of course—but what I saw in Greece has made me pay more attention.  

TC: One of the things we pick up pretty quickly is your disdain for NGOs (and to a lesser extent, the media) who seem, in your telling, to be mostly ineffectual observers of the crisis. Is that an accurate assessment? What did your time there reveal about how NGOs are managing the crisis?

SH: Those organizations did provide essential material support. And I saw NGO reps who were working hard. But in my experience—limited to one month in one locale, I admit—the reps of the bigger NGOs radiated self-importance and a kind of detachment from the very crisis they were there to address and the refugees they were there to help. Maybe that’s just the way of people attached to powerful organizations and wearing logo’d gear (i.e., essentially uniforms). They were dismissive and bossy toward the volunteers; they seemed distressed by the informal vibe of the volunteer-run camp (OXY: named for the closed nightclub in whose parking lot it sprang up) where I worked most days or evenings.

Both the NGOs and the local authorities seemed determined to close OXY. To be fair to them, they must have seen themselves as professionals—the cool, objective veterans of various humanitarian crises—while we volunteers were, at best, good-hearted amateurs. They probably felt it was their duty to systematize the response protocol on Lesvos. And it’s true that when I arrived there the situation was still chaotic; there were over seventy NGO and volunteer organizations on the island, ranging from the UNHCR to Antifa, and each had a very different philosophy and approach.

All I can say in the end is that good-hearted amateurs may do a better job, on a human level, than a large, efficient, well-funded machine. The volunteers worked unstintingly to make OXY as comfortable and pleasant as possible—a place where refugees, fresh from their sea crossing, could rest, recover, get dry clothes and shoes, play soccer, and eat their fill of the lentil stew made nightly by the Anarchist chefs in the field kitchen.     

TC: I was also struck by how you weave in your own history—in particular, your Greek heritage and conversations and relationships with some of the locals on Lesvos. During the time of your stay, Greece was in a desperate financial crisis of its own. How did your own culture and family history shape how you understood and processed what you were seeing on the ground?

SH: Bizarrely, it was not until a few days after arriving on Lesvos that I remembered some history I’d learned years before: a million Asian Greek refugees had fled Turkey in 1922–23 and a few of my own distant relations were probably among them. Near a beach where two crowded rafts had just come in I found a plaque describing that earlier exodus and confirming what I should have known, since the Turkey–Lesvos crossing is the shortest in the Aegean: most of those Greek refugees had followed the same route used now by the Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.

I can only assume that story was in the back of my mind when I decided to go to Lesvos. And maybe that’s not so strange after all. As I put it in the book, “Don’t we always look past the obvious—those facts and stories we’ve breathed in from infancy? And isn’t it often the things we overlook, forget or bury that catalyze our decisions, as they constellate our dreams?”   
TC: Finally, five years have passed since you were on Lesvos, and the situation has grown ever more desperate. Just recently, one of the refugee camps you write about—the large Moria camp—was destroyed in a fire. Do you keep up with what’s happening on Lesvos, or what has happened to the folks you met in 2015? If so, what has it been like to read or hear the news from such a distance?

Awful. Yes, I do keep up, and I keep in touch with several of the people I met. I’ve thought of going back, though I hear volunteers not affiliated with NGOs are no longer welcome. I could always lie and say I’m there to visit distant relations.  


From Reaching Mithymna

I climb on up the slope, the sun lower and shaded by the leafy trellises sheltering the lane. At last a fragrance of fresh bread hurries me on and I stoop through a low doorway into a neolithic-looking stone hive. Winded, I nod to the yawning teenager behind the counter.

“You are just in time,” she says in English. “We are closing. You are a volunteer?”

“I’d like to be. I hear you need some.”

“We need many.”

I drop the bags and point to the last loaf on the shelf behind her. “And do you know where I can find Elektra?”

“Of course. You are very close.” She leads me outside and points up the street at a shingle above a door: ELEKTRA GASTHAUS.

The owner is a burly woman with henna-dyed hair, operatic eyeliner and a shrewdly appraising gaze. As I stand in her doorway she pumps my hand like a football coach, then half turns and presents her husband, Alexis, a redfaced man in a watch cap sitting behind her in the shadows at a hulking old desktop computer. I’m surprised to meet a husband, since Elektra’s housedress, scarf, and slippers are widow-black.

She leads me up an outside stairway onto a concrete veranda and into a dim, drafty hallway. “The first three rooms are taken by other volunteers,” she says in Greek, “but the back one is unoccupied.” Unlocking the door she adds, “I can speak some German, but poorly.”

“I’m sure mine is worse.”

“You aren’t German? Most of the volunteers ...”

“Actually I’m half-Greek, on my mother’s side.”

She eyes me, as if weighing whether or not to make some remark, probably about my Greek. I drop my luggage and enter the room: a double bed, sink, small fridge and stove with gas burners, a tiny bathroom and, through the sliding door, another, private veranda with a sunlit table and chair. Above the table, pomegranates droop among waxy leaves. She names a price and eyes me sidelong, her pencilled eyebrows raised; she expects me to quibble. But it’s cheap, cheaper than I’d hoped for, and I’m too tired to bargain. I tell her I’ll take it for a month.

Fifteen minutes later, a sharp rapping on the door, which swings open. Stripped to shorts and an undershirt, chewing a piece of bread, I’m hanging shirts in the wardrobe. Elektra sweeps in, cradling a stuffed paper bag. “Here are things to eat,” she says in German. And then, in Greek, “The volunteer men never feed themselves properly.” On the Formica table beside my half-eaten loaf she sets out a packet of Greek coffee, clear bags of pistachios and almonds, a slab of cheese in wax paper, tins of sardines, ripe tomatoes and apricots, a pocket bottle of ouzo and three packs of Marlboros. There’s also a plastic water bottle filled with a viscous liquid resembling motor oil. She flourishes the bottle and blurts something. I spread my hands, grinning stupidly, and she re-explains as rapidly as before but with extra words and exaggerated gestures: it’s fresh olive oil, the very best virgin oil, pressed this very morning down at the farmers’ collective. “You must never again eat your bread dry,” she rebukes me, “as if this is a time of poverty or war.”

Copyright © Steven Heighton, 2020. Reprinted by permission of Biblioasis.

December 3, 2020
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